The White House will shut down its COVID-19 response team after the public health emergency ends in May, with some staffers already departing and national coordinator Ashish Jha likely to leave the administration once his team is disbanded, according to multiple current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal operations.
The move to disband the White House COVID-19 team, created in February 2020 and expanded to about three dozen staffers under President Biden, comes as the pandemic has receded from U.S. hospitals and in voters’ minds. The nation avoided a feared winter surge of virus deaths earlier this year, and while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still links about 2,000 deaths per week to COVID-19, that represents the lowest death toll since the earliest days of the pandemic.
At the same time, Republicans on the campaign trail are ramping up attacks on coronavirus vaccines and shutdowns, capitalizing on many voters' frustration with policies intended to curb the pandemic. And on Capitol Hill, House Republicans, now in the majority, are charging ahead with investigations into the origins of the pandemic.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The White House COVID-19 team has been shrinking for some time, but its formal end marks a milestone in the trajectory of the pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak engulfed the end of Donald Trump’s presidency and the beginning of Biden’s, became a central focus of the U.S. government for three years, and erupted into one of the biggest public health crises in the nation’s history.
Some experts said there are practical reasons to wind down the response, noting the virus's decreasing burden on the U.S. health system.
"If not now, then when?" said Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco who said he has served as an informal adviser to Jha. "I'm increasingly persuaded by the arguments that this has to fold into the way we manage other diseases."
He added, "We have a 'war on cancer,' and that doesn't require a cancer czar."
Others said that the move was, if anything, overdue and that phasing out the White House's role earlier would have let the government shift the cost of vaccines and treatments to the private sector. "I begged them last April to wind down the emergency," said former senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who was the top Republican on the Senate's health committee before retiring this year. "There's a lot of things that brought confusion to what should have been a purely health care-driven policy."
But Deborah Birx, who served as the nation’s first coronavirus coordinator, suggested that too few anti-pandemic mechanisms have been put in place to justify winding down the team. She said the administration has missed opportunities to improve the monitoring of virus data, invest in the development of more durable vaccines and take other steps that Biden vowed to accomplish in his sweeping COVID-19 plan.
"It's not too early [to disband] if we had used the last two years to build all of these systems that we needed - but we haven't," Birx said.
She also lamented the public’s reduced attention to COVID-19′s risks, noting that the virus’s evolution has allowed it to evade some treatments and left immunocompromised Americans with fewer protections. “No one is even talking about that vulnerable Americans are more vulnerable today than they were a year ago,” Birx said.
Just under 9 percent of Americans said they were “extremely concerned” about COVID-19 in a December Axios-Ipsos poll, compared with 31 percent in January 2021 when Biden took office. Just under half, 48 percent, approved of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, his highest approval rating across a set of issues, according to a February Reuters-Ipsos poll.
Several COVID-19 response officials have departed in recent weeks without the White House filling their slots, including Mary Wall, who served as the team’s chief of staff, and Subhan Cheema, who helped lead COVID-19 communications before moving to the White House’s science and technology office.
The team's diminished presence has manifested in diminished proximity to the president: Jha's office was moved out of the West Wing this year to the neighboring Eisenhower Executive Office Building, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Other top health officials have left as well. Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, retired in December; David Kessler, a top adviser on the pandemic and vaccine distribution, left in January; and the top job at the National Institutes of Health remains unfilled after Francis Collins stepped down in December 2021.
Jha, who is on leave from his role as dean of Brown University's public health school, joined the White House in April. He has spoken about "the very simple goal of wanting to make sure we're protecting people as we pull out of this public health emergency" - a mission that Jha and his colleagues say they've accomplished, according to three White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private discussions.
“We are in a different and in a better place with COVID,” Jha told WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, last week. “Now, that doesn’t mean COVID’s gone. It doesn’t mean COVID is not a problem. But it means that the emergency tools we needed to manage this virus are no longer needed in the same way.”
The view, however, is not shared by some activists and advocates who have called for the White House to ramp up its virus messaging and responsibilities, not wind them down.
“The federal government is relieving itself of responsibility for the ongoing death, disability and debility wrought by COVID at a time when continued intervention is critical,” activists Artie Vierkant and Beatrice Adler-Bolton wrote this month in In These Times.
Kristin Urquiza, co-founder of patient advocacy group Marked by Covid, said the Biden administration has erred by focusing almost solely on vaccinations to the exclusion of measures like masking in crowded places. "The communication around the pandemic has been too little, too late," she said. "The focus on a single approach to the problem . . . has proven to not be successful."
Officials cautioned that Jha’s departure from government is not yet finalized, saying Biden could ask him to stay on as COVID-19 coordinator or create a new role for him. Some members of the COVID-19 response team are also expected to join a new White House pandemic response office, created by legislation written by Burr and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and set to open this year.
While administration leaders have discussed Jha taking the helm of that office, which is intended to coordinate the response to future crises, he has indicated he is not interested in that role, two people familiar with the matter said.
The government is not alone in closing down part of its COVID-19 response efforts. Johns Hopkins University this month halted its pandemic tracking tool, a closely watched metric during the height of the outbreak.
"While the threat of Covid is not gone and we cannot grow complacent, it's clear we are in a much different place today than three years ago," Murray said in a statement. "Now we need to stay focused on ensuring a smooth transition so no one falls through the cracks, and making sure we are applying all the lessons from this pandemic."
Burr, Wachter and others praised Jha’s time as COVID-19 coordinator, saying he had worked to speed access to updated coronavirus vaccines and treatments like Paxlovid, which have been credited with saving lives. However, only 16 percent of Americans have received the updated bivalent vaccine, according to CDC data, and many high-risk COVID-19 patients do not seek out Paxlovid prescriptions.
“You could argue that one of his jobs is to convince everybody to take the things, and that hasn’t happened as well as you would have hoped and he would have liked,” Wachter said. “But if there’s a better communicator about COVID in the universe, I haven’t met him or her.”
Wachter also said that after COVID’s speed and mutations repeatedly challenged health systems in the first two years of the pandemic, there had been fewer surprises since the emergence of the omicron variant around Thanksgiving in 2021.
Current and former officials said the idea all along was that the team would be wound down eventually. “We took these jobs with a goal of becoming obsolete,” a former official said.